Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad:
Classroom Discussion Guide

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Because of its multiple layers of meaning and unrelenting ambiguity, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness is likely to leave readers with the same thought Marlow, the novel's principal narrator, has about his own story. He says, "It seemed somehow to throw a kind of light on everything about me," but it was "not very clear either. No, not very clear" (p. 21). The novel opens aboard a boat anchored on the Thames River near London, darkness descending. An unidentified narrator introduces us to a group of friends and to Marlow. As a kind of preface to his tale, Marlow points out that to the invaders from ancient Rome, Britain must have appeared just as uncivilized as Africa does to European colonizers. This observation, like many Marlow makes throughout the story, unsettles any assumptions the reader may have about the opposition between barbarity and civilization, colonizer and colonized.

Adrift in London, Marlow decides to seek work aboard a ship that will take him to Africa. The Congo River, as he looks at it on a map in a shop window, fascinates Marlow "as a snake would a bird--a silly little bird" (p. 22). He gets a job with a Belgian trading company – which he refers to only as "the Company" – commanding a steamboat up the Congo. As he travels deeper into Africa, Marlow feels a growing sense of dread. Just as the native Congolese people and the difficulty of keeping the boat afloat pose a physical threat to Marlow, his increasing distance from a familiar world poses a threat to his mental state. The stillness of the river does not seem peaceful to him, but rather suggests "an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention" (p. 60). He describes his meeting with Mr. Kurtz – an employee of the Company in charge of a trading post that acquires huge quantities of ivory – as "the culminating point of my experience" (p. 21). It is only in retrospect, however, that Marlow understands his experience this way. When he sets out, Marlow has never heard of Kurtz; the purpose of his journey, never clearly explained, becomes obscured by Marlow's growing fascination with him. An accountant for the Company whom Marlow meets on the Congo is the first to mention Kurtz. He tells Marlow that Kurtz is "a very remarkable person" (p. 37), an opinion that Marlow comes to share. In what sense this assessment of Kurtz may be true, why Marlow believes it, and why his encounter with Kurtz becomes so heavily laden with significance for Marlow are central questions posed by the novel.

Early in the novel, the narrator tells us that to Marlow, "the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze" (p. 18). This comment suggests that the meaning of Marlow's encounter with Kurtz can be found not in the experience itself, but in the telling of the story – a transaction between Marlow and his listeners. The larger implication is that, rather than perceiving significance or sense within the external world, we infuse past experience with meaning. Kurtz is the focal point of Marlow's story, but only insofar as he is a catalyst for Marlow's contemplation of human nature, specifically the impulse to bring "civilization" to the "uncivilized."

In saying that Kurtz "was hollow at the core" (p. 95), is Marlow saying that the only meaning his encounter with Kurtz can possibly have is that which he imposes on it after the fact? Does Marlow intend to say something about the enterprise in which Kurtz was engaged? Marlow to sees clearly that the Company is run for profit, but many people around him convince themselves that Europeans are in Africa for a higher purpose. Marlow's aunt, who helps him to get command of the steamboat, considers him "an emissary of light, something like a lower sort of apostle" (p. 28); she believes that the European colonizers are "weaning those ignorant millions from their horrid ways" (p. 28). But once he finally meets Kurtz and beholds his trading post dotted with shrunken heads atop sticks, Marlow finds a man whose ways seem beyond horrid, who "had kicked himself loose of the earth" (p. 107) and "knew no restraint, no faith, and no fear" (p. 108).

Marlow tells us that many who have come into contact with Kurtz are in awe of him, but why this is so remains mysterious. The Russian is the most striking example; he is religiously devoted to Kurtz. In Marlow's own case, it is difficult to know whether his conclusion that Kurtz is indeed remarkable is based on what Kurtz says (he is always primarily a voice to Marlow) or on Marlow's own disposition and needs. The difficulty is best illustrated by Marlow's attempt to interpret Kurtz's dying words: "The horror! The horror!" (p. 112). Marlow insists that Kurtz is remarkable because upon dying "he had summed up--he had judged" (p. 113). To Marlow, Kurtz's words are "the expression of some sort of belief" (p. 113). What has Kurtz pronounced judgment on – himself, human nature, the colonial enterprise? What does he believe in? Marlow has no answers to these questions. Is Marlow unable to let go of his hope that there is some truth to be understood, and that it can be understood, even if it remains inaccessible to him?

Equally puzzling is Marlow's meeting with "the Intended," the unnamed woman to whom Kurtz was apparently engaged. When she asks Marlow to tell her Kurtz's last words, he tells her that Kurtz said her name. Marlow fears that "the house would collapse" and "the heavens would fall" (p. 123) in response to his lie, but he then wonders if they would have fallen had he "rendered Kurtz that justice which was his due" (p. 123). Is Marlow obligated by his admiration for Kurtz to tell the truth no matter what the consequences? Marlow only says that telling the Intended the truth would have been "too dark – too dark altogether" (p. 123). His story ends here, leaving open the question of whether it was the Intended or Marlow for whom the truth would have been too dark. Heart of Darkness is a profound meditation on not only the elusiveness of truth, but also the irresistible inducements to living with lies.

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